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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

Ezra Brook Dixon: Pioneer Settler at Paynes Ford, Takaka Valley

Ezra Brook Dixon: Pioneer Settler at Paynes Ford, Takaka Valley

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The bush-covered limestone outcrops at Paynes Ford Scenic Reserve are familiar to all who drive on State Highway 60 to Takaka, and the Reserve is a popular place for picnicking and rock-climbing. The crags overlook the Takaka River at its confluence with the Waingaro.

Why Paynes Ford? It remained a ford until 1895, when the first bridge was opened. The family associated with the area was Paine, but the misspelling of the name crept in from about 1891. There was, however, an earlier name linked with the ford, that of Dixon. It was still referred to as Dixon's ford, or Dixon's crossing, until at least 1889. Ezra Brook Dixon and his wife Laura remained in the Takaka Valley only thirteen years, but in that time made a significant contribution to the embryo settlement. Their experiences illustrate the hardships and difficulties faced by many pioneers.

Ezra Brook Dixon

EB Dixon was born in Leeds in 1837 but spent most of his formative years in London. All that is known of his education is that it was a classical one and included mathematics and science. He studied for a short time at London University until his health failed and he was advised to live in a warmer climate.

He arrived in Nelson in 1862 as a young man of 26 on the Edward Thornhill and sailed almost immediately for Waitapu. Early in 1863 he became an assistant to Thomas Brunner for several months during Brunner's survey of the Howard and Lakes area. 1

Dixon's bride-to-be, Laura Yeo of London, arrived later that year on the Owen Glendower and, after their marriage in Auckland, they returned to the Takaka Valley. Eric and Frederick Sparrow, sons of pioneer settlers George and Harriet Sparrow, met the couple at

Waitapu with a bullock dray and took them to their two-roomed cottage. It was remembered by their daughter, Anne, from childhood as 'near a pretty river and on the lower slope of bush-covered hills and cliffs'. The property bought by Dixon included all or most of the present Paynes Ford Scenic Reserve, and the cottage probably stood on the slope above today's bridge.

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Ezra Brook Dixon as a young man in London. H Arthur.

Ezra Brook Dixon as a young man in London. H Arthur.

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The Dixon Property at Paynes Ford

In September 1863 Dixon bought a total of 120 acres (49 hectares) from Thomas Windle with the help of a £250 mortgage loan from Alfred Fell of Nelson. The purchase comprised part 2 (54 acres or 22 ha) and 3 (36 acres or 15 ha) of Section 30, on the east bank of the Takaka River, and part of Section 122 (30 acres or 12 ha) on the west bank. Two years later he purchased a further 141 acres (57 ha), part of neighbouring Section 110 on the east bank, as a Crown Grant. All were in square 11 of the Waitapu Survey District under the early survey system. For several years a friend, Arthur John Bromiley, was associated with Dixon at Takaka but it is not clear in what capacity.

Apart from the limestone outcrops the land was fertile river flat, swampy in places and subject to flooding near the rivers. It was in dense standing bush, of trees such as matai, rimu and kahikatea, most of them, as described by J Halket Millar, 'about 100 feet (30m) high, with trunks in proportion'. 2

Pioneer Farming in the Takaka Valley

The first European settlement in the Takaka Valley was near the coast but lawyer and explorer, WTL Travers, reported in 1857 that 'enterprising and hardworking settlers have already penetrated the recesses of its forests and he predicted that the valley's fertility and valuable timber would see it speedily occupied. 3

Those early settlers of today's East and West Takaka (at that time known as Upper Takaka) would have included the Sparrow, Handcock and Barnett families but little impression had been made on the bush when the Dixons arrived in 1863. Halket Millar remembered it, a few years later, as 'a grand sight from the surrounding hills, with tiny clearings dotted here and there, each with a small shack in the middle of it'. Muddy tracks were the only means of access to neighbouring farms, the stores at the Junction (Takaka township), or the port at Waitapu, where everything arrived from Nelson.

Millar relates how the young John F Rose arrived from Upper Moutere looking for timber to mill and found an excellent site beside the Takaka River. 'He looked about for the owners of the land and found a man named Dixon. He was a gold digger for preference and was not making any other use of the land. Asked if he would sell sufficient of his holding to give space for a mill and a stack of timber, Dixon was agreeable and sold the freehold of the site for £50'. 4

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It has not been possible to verify when Bartlett and Rose established the West Road sawmill, but it was probably in the late 1860s or early 1870s. They were clearly well established by 1875, when they were referred to in a newspaper account of a drowning. 5 The mill was not on the Dixon site first selected by Rose, but near the present Roman Catholic cemetery. Dixon held a water right and, like some of the other settlers, may have fossicked in the Anatoki and other rivers, but it is unlikely that he was ever a serious miner.

It was essentially subsistence farming at first, as bush was cleared and seeds broadcast amongst the stumps and fallen timber. Settlers hunted the numerous kaka and kereru, grew their own fruit and vegetables and some wheat, which was ground at Lewis Bros' mill. Poultry were kept, those who had a few cows milked them by hand and churned butter which, with the eggs, could be sold or bartered at the store when there was a surplus. By 1867 Dixon and Bromiley had a small flock of several hundred sheep and there were at least nine other flocks in the valley at the time. 6 Several farmers ran cattle, but getting them to market was a problem.

Dixon was probably unsuited physically and temperamentally to the heavy manual work of developing a bush farm. He had had little initial capital and faced mortgage payments and mounting debts to Page's store and the Road Board. With a rapidly growing family of small children – eight born in ten years – to support, he gave up farming for teaching in 1874.

Church and Community Involvement

Their religious faith was very important to the early settlers. The Protestants of East and West Takaka at first met for worship in the home of Mr and Mrs Henry Lewis. Ezra Brook Dixon was probably one of the initiators when a site was cleared, timber sawn and money raised for a church in 1867. 7 He was certainly one of the original three trustees, together with George James Sparrow and William Lawrence Handcock. 8 The church was built in 1868, as far as can be determined, about the same time as the Roman Catholic church in West Takaka, said to be the first in the district. 9 The East Takaka church is still in use today, essentially in its original form.

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Map of Dixon properties. H Arthur

Map of Dixon properties. H Arthur

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Dixon was at various times a committee member of the Takaka Library and was also auditor for the library and the Takaka and Motupipi Road Board. He had a very good tenor voice and had sung in the great 1859 Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London, so was much in demand at the district's socials and concerts. Typically, he was one of the enthusiasts who cleared a paddock on the West Road of its logs and stumps to make a cricket pitch in 1866. Mr Fred Sparrow remembered him as the team's first captain. 10

A Ford on the Takaka River

Unbridged rivers were a constant hazard in the early days of settlement, with drowning becoming known as 'the New Zealand death'. The Nelson Provincial Council voted £25 to provide a ferry at Thomas Windle's, above the confluence of the Takaka and Waingaro Rivers, in 1861, but nothing seems to have come of it. 11 Dixon's neighbour, James Kealy, whose property also fronted the Waingaro, made his canoe available, but drowned in 1864 when it overturned in the Takaka River. Dixon and Bromiley then found themselves acting as unofficial ferrymen and later that year requested that official ferries be established at both crossings, for which they would be paid a fee. 12

It was possibly the drowning of 'a much respected settler', Mrs Kealy, the widow of James, in November 1866 which finally brought action, especially as two daughters were left orphaned. She had been crossing the Waingaro on horseback and it was concluded that she had been thrown and stunned when she fell on boulders. The river was feared for its swiftness and the rocky nature of its bed and was described by the Nelson Examiner as 'extremely rapid and dangerous to cross at this place'. 13

John Blackett, the Provincial Engineer, was asked to 'examine a line of road which would avoid the crossing of the dangerous ford on the Waingaro River, by diverging from the West Takaka road just above that river, through Messrs Dixon and Bromley's (sic) land, crossing the Takaka at an excellent shallow, permanent ford'. 14 Blackett commented that it would 'render travelling in the district much more certain and safe during freshes than by the present road'. The line was gazetted on 21 November 1867. In his annual report, dated 13 April 1868, Blackett said that landowners had given their permission for the new road and the crossing was 'an excellent and unchanging ford, and saves the travellers the danger of crossing the dreaded Waingaro'. 15

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Horse-drawn wagon load of sawn timber on the first bridge at Paynes Ford, looking towards the west bank of the Takaka River. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 181986/

Horse-drawn wagon load of sawn timber on the first bridge at Paynes Ford, looking towards the west bank of the Takaka River. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 181986/

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The Tramway and the First Bridge at Paynes Ford

As sawmilling expanded, the primitive roads were soon cut up and made impassable by the horsedrawn junkers, or log haulers, and wagonloads of timber. A tramway began operating in 1882 between Waitapu Wharf and East Takaka, primarily to carry timber to the wharf. Its embankments can still be seen at Paynes Ford, where there was also a siding to load timber from across the river. The little 'coffee pot' locomotive travelled at scarcely more than walking pace on the 2ft 6in (76 cm) narrow gauge line. Often the butt of jokes, the tramway was of great service to farmers and pedestrians and was fondly remembered for its annual conveyance of school picnic goers at the expense of sawmiller, Thomas Baigent.

The tramway suffered with the decline of sawmilling, and its end was hastened by a disastrous flood in 1904 which left bridges unsafe and washed out much of the line, or blocked it with debris. Newport gives an account of the establishment and operation of the tramway and records that it ceased operating in 1905. 16

Drownings continued to occur at the Takaka River crossing and the need for a bridge was frequently urged, but it was not until 1894 that a wooden bridge was built at Paynes Ford; it was opened in 1895, with appropriate liquid refreshments. The present concrete bridge is a short distance downstream, but abutments of the earlier one remain, and the line of the original road west of the river is still marked by several venerable poplar trees.

Mr and Mrs Dixon Become Teachers

The Dixon family was under constant financial pressure. Laura Dixon's appointment as mistress of Long Plain School in 1874 must have brought some relief, even at the low salary of £60. She rode off daily across the river to teach, a baby and a three year old child with her on the horse, leaving the oldest child in charge at home. Her successor, Miss Jemima Burt, drowned making the same river crossing.

EB Dixon was appointed shortly after to the Lower Takaka (now Takaka) school, at that time one of the poorest of the Province's schools. There was an immediate improvement in attendance and results. In 1875 he moved on to the larger and better paid school at Collingwood. The School Inspector, WC Hodgson, found that under Dixon 'the children were being thoroughly well taught and a complete reformation had already been effected in the formerly very lax discipline of the school'. 17 Laura Dixon also taught at Collingwood for the second half of 1875.

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The promised house proved to be uninhabitable and the school little better, forcing him to live at the Commercial Hotel for some weeks. His wife and family remained for the time at Takaka. Dixon had found his vocation for teaching and, later that year, applied for the post of head teacher of the new Hokitika School with the recommendation of Inspector Hodgson who said "I do not think we have a better man in our service". 18

Ezra Brook Dixon became headmaster of the Hokitika State School in 1876 and gave it a sound reputation for academic standards and discipline. In 1890 he was appointed Inspector and Secretary to the Westland Board of Education, succeeding another former Nelson man, John Smith. Dixon died at Hokitika less then six months later, aged only 53.

Disposal of the Dixon Land at Paynes Ford

Dixon had sold the 30 acres of section 122 west of the Takaka River to Nathanial Paine in 1868. In 1874, when he was about to go teaching, two other sections were advertised and Paine bought part 3 of Section 30. Paine died in 1881 and two years later, when his widow was intending to visit England, she advertised her property to let. The advertisement in The Colonist of 30 November 1883 described it as a small farm of about 30 acres of 'rich Pasture Land, on the West side of the Takaka River, with Dwelling house. Outbuildings, Half Acre Orchard in full bearing. Cellar, Well, etc'. In addition, there were 30–40 acres across the river, mostly cleared, fenced and in grass.

A son, Herbert (Bartie) Paine, is described as a well-known character who kept a few sheep, but who spent most of his time working a little coal-mine on his (and, with two trolleys on a pulley, the loaded one discharging into a truck on the tramway. 19 Bartie Paine died in 1938.

The other section advertised by Dixon in 1874 was part 1 of Section 110, 'partly bush and partly cleared', 141 acres at £141. It was eventually bought by Robert Bartlett in 1883 under a mortgagee sale.

It was not until 1886 that the last block of land, part 2 of Section 30, was advertised for sale. The advertisement in The Colonist of 2 September 1886 described Mr Dixon's property as 'containing 54 acres, on which have recently been discovered most interesting Caves. The section abounds in fossiliferous limestone, and brown coal 2 ft thick, thus affording a splendid opening for the burning of lime'. Reference was also made to the steam tramway running through the property.

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Henry Abbott, who was variously a store owner, butcher, owner of The Junction Hotel and sawmiller, and who described himself as a farmer, bought the section, which was transferred to him in 1888. He wasted no time in building a home that was the admiration of all. A report from The Colonist's Golden Bay correspondent on 25 October 1888 said that he 'had spared no expense in taking advantage of the great natural beauties of the spot selected', and spoke also of the 'marvellous stalactite caves'.

An account of the caves in The Colonist of 17 July 1889 names the house as Abbotsford. A landscape by Charles Blomfield in 1891 shows the house with its verandah on the north-facing hillside, backed by tall native trees and with lawns and gardens sloping down in front. 20 Abbott, who was credited with having liberated possums at Abbotsford, died in 1896 and the house is said to have burnt down in 1929. 21

Development of the Takaka Valley

Sawmilling was the main industry of the Takaka Valley in the first half century of European settlement, with farmers following the millers as land was cleared. Development was slow, handicapped by remoteness from Nelson, poor roads and by the large areas of land held by absentee owners. EB Dixon was not successful as a farmer and moved on, but most of the early settlers persevered, barely making a living. Hops became a cash crop from the early 1870s, with a report in The Colonist of 6 April 1875 listing seven growers whose gardens were described as 'wonderfully productive'. This is some years earlier than is usually given. Within a decade those with suitable soils were beginning to live in more comfortable circumstances, although most farms remained in a rough state until the Advances to Settlers Act of 1894. The establishment of a butter and a bacon factory in the same year heralded a better and more stable future for dairying. The stumps and blackberry were finally cleared and today's farms began to take shape.


  • Millar, J Halket Beyond the Marble Mountain Nelson: Lucas, 1948.
  • Nelson Provincial Council Votes and Proceedings and Gazettes.
  • Newport, JNW Golden Bay, One Hundred Years of Local Government
  • Takaka: Golden Bay County Council, 1975.
  • Rogers, Beryl East Takaka Church and cemetery and early settlers 1868 – 1993 Motueka: Flying Fingers, 1993.
  • Newspapers: Nelson Examiner, The Colonist, Nelson Evening Mail.
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1. Thomas Brunner's Field Book Nos. 35,171 and 204.
2.Millar, p111.
3. NE 29 April 1857.
4.Millar, p111, 107.
5. Col 24 July, 3 August 1875.
6.Gaz 11 March 1868.
7.NP – NTF 2/4 National Archives, Wellington.
8.Nelson Deeds Book 9D/10641 20 July 1868.
9. NEM 24 September 1868.
10. NEM 24 April 1937.
11. V & P 15 May 1861.
12.NP7 64/636 National Archives, Wellington.
13. NE 27 November 1866.
14.Gaz 19 June 1867; NE 18 June 1867.
15. Gaz 25 April 1868.
16.Newport, pp 31-38.
17. Gaz 24 July 1875.
18. West Coast Times 23 October 1875.
19.Rogers, p 63.
20.Rogers, p36.
21. NEM 15 September 1900.